Friday, October 26, 2007

Wicked At Heart: A Response To John Eldridge's Popular Book

Perhaps it is a sign of an elitist attitude, but if a book is popular, I am unlikely to read it because it is popular. Most things that are popular today will not be tomorrow, as the next fad replaces it. John Eldridge’s Wild At Heart is one book that I avoided, but unlike The Di Vinci Code, it did not die as I assumed it would. Rather, I noticed more and more friends including it on lists of favorite books. Even women seem enamored with it. Since I did not have the time to spend reading it, I turned to the next best thing: online book reviews. Unfortunately, I found no consensus. Reviewers either loved or hated the book. While more gave the book a positive review than not, the criticisms leveled against the it by detractors warranted finding the time to read it myself. So, I finally found time and read Wild At Heart (everything but chapter 12, that is...or perhaps this is my chapter 12).

To be honest, I was not impressed with Wild At Heart. I think that while John Eldridge may have the best intentions and is sincerely trying address very real problems, the theological basis on which his book rests is severely lacking. I wish I could support the message of Wild At Heart, as Eldridge sells his ideas in an attractive manner, but, as Augustine noted, rhetoric is merely the makeup of language. Something in me wanted what Eldridge wrote to be true, but another part of me shudders at some of the poor arguments he made.

My disagreements with Eldridge boils down to this: he tells men to follow their hearts. He tells his reader that all real men have certain kinds of desires, and argues that God takes risks. I think these errors make Wild At Heart not worth giving to anyone but a discerning reader.

The most fundamental problem with Wild At Heart is that he tells people that they are basically good. The fundamental premise of his book is that when the desires in a man’s hearts are suppressed, he will live an unhappy, boring and unfulfilled life. Only by following the desires of his heart can he truly thrive. Thus, Eldridge tells us nothing not already blared at us from pop music and Disney movies: “follow your heart. Jeremiah 17:9 states: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Eldridge briefly addresses this verse, dismissing with the claim that it only applies under the “old covenant,” and that since we are under the new covenant, the verse no longer applies to us. While I understand that Eldridge is trying to remind us that we are a new creation in Christ, he seems to forget that even the Christian is still battling against the old sinful nature at every turn. Even the Apostle Paul experienced this, as noted in Romans, where he writes: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Give such frank admissions from Paul, I fail to see how Eldridge can make such sweeping claims that the knowledge that his heart is good can keep him from sinning. This is an unorthodox understanding of original sin; some might even say that it is Pelagianism.

While the discussion of this topic takes up only a few paragraphs in total, it is so foundational to that it renders the rest of the book suspect. I do not have time (nor a copy of the book any longer) to evaluate each and every one of these subordinate ideas, but if anyone would care to show how his conclusions can follow from a more correct understanding of human nature, please let me know.

Another bone I pick with Wild At Heart is the picture of manhood that it presents. Danger, adventure and beautiful women typify the life that Eldridge calls men to. Further, he presents the solution to men as something that rests in their own hands. To Eldridge, the answer to the crisis of manhood rests in men affirming themselves and indulging in their desires. I strongly disagree with this picture of manhood.

Missing from the pages of Wild At Heart is the call to self-sacrifice and to duty. Rather than denying himself and putting others’ needs before his own, Eldridge teaches that one must fulfill his own desires and take care of his own needs before he can meet the needs of others. This is not manliness, it is selfishness. Eldridge eschews the concept of duty, a virtue even the pagan Romans understood. Duty calls a man to live up to his principles and to those he has committed to. When his heart does not desire to love and honor his wife, a man’s duty to her will call him to maintain his fidelity. Duty is a powerful and noble motivation maligned in Wild At Heart.

There is no better example of manhood than Jesus Christ. He did not seek to meet his own desires. Indeed, in the Garden of Gethsemene, Christ prayed to the Father, asking that the cup of his crucifixion be taken from him, but then he prayed, “not my will, but your’s be done.” Christ sacrificed himself for others. He lived a life of service and would inconvenience himself to heal others.

My next point is the weakest of my accusations against Wild At Heart. It is more of a hunch and a result of “reading between the lines,” but I think Eldridge’s picture of manhood does not demonstrate an good understanding of men like me, who would rather read Plato than skydive. Not every man want to live “wild” in the sense that he desires to go into the wilderness weeks at a time and kill his food with his bare hands. While there are certainly those men among us (and I in no way attempt to invalidate their manhood), there are others who find the more refined, leisurely, aspects of culture more desirable. That I enjoy going to a symphony than going camping does not make me less of a man. Courage can be demonstrated just as clearly on a football team as it can in an intellectual debate. Sacrifice is not a virtue relegated to the battlefield, but is readily seen in daily life.

When father was younger, he enjoyed having a motorcycle. Due to a variety of circumstances, he eventually decided that it would be for the best if he sold his motorcycle. He did this to keep himself safe and able to provide for his family. John Eldridge would say that he is giving up his desire to be dangerous and adventurous; only hinders his life as a man. I say that there is true manhood in my father’s example. Rather than indulging in his own desires, he decided to make a sacrifice for the sake of his family. One does not need to go skydiving to be a man. A man is one who can deny himself and seek the betterment of others. As Voddie Baucham said with regards to men being the head of the family, it means that if anyone suffers, he is going to be the first one. If anyone is going to go hungry, he is going to be the first one. He does this because duty, an expression of love, binds him to the commitments he has made, and calls him to sacrifice himself on the behalf of others.


abby said...

You would just LOVE their book for women, Captivating. :)

Veronica said...

I've not read "Wild (or Wicked - I like that!) at Heart", but, from your review, it looks as though it is filled with the same ambiguous generalizations and bad theology as its counterpart.

Like you, I also expected the excitement surrounding these books to die down fairly quickly...I am amazed that it has maintained its popularity. It saddens me to see so many men and women (and churches!) still buying into their dangerous, self-centered philosophies. (2 Timothy 4:3!)

Thank you for your kind comment, and a thorough reveiw of this dangerous book!

Anonymous said...

Curious to know if you have read Sacred Influence...I dodge Wild at Heart and Captivating for those similar reasons...

Jacob Douvier said...

I am not familiar with Sacred Influence. Who wrote it and what is it about?

Anonymous said...

Hey Jacob! Sacred Influence is by Gary Thomas! Its basically a challenge to women. The subtitle says "what a man needs from his wife to be the husband she wants" altho I don't like the wording of that. The book was a reminder of first an foremost who I am as a Daughter of the King. My identity is in Him. Then shows and encourages women rather then trying to change their husbands (or I apply this to my Christian brothers) Allowing God to change their hearts, and becoming an influence. It was really convicting to me as well as encouraged me in who I was in Christ.

Jacob Douvier said...

Sounds interesting. I have read a few articles that Gary Thomas has written for

That we cannot change other people (and, I would argue, even ourselves) is a realization that I wish more people would have. Only by the grace of God will any of us every be anything like the sacrificing servants of one another that we ought to be.

Courtney said...

Thanks for this post, I just found it through Boundless.
I actually had a recent discussion with a friend who is enamored with this book. I knew it wasn't grounded theologically, but didn't know how to word my concerns about the book. I think you hit the nail on the head, especially with the doctrine of sin.

Jacob Douvier said...

Thanks for stopping by, Courtney!
It really is amazing how many people are so in love with this book. The burden of proof really is on the Eldridges, as the position on sin they convey in Wild At Heart is definitely outside of the traditional understanding of sin, and relies on poor handling of the Word of God.

Lee said...

I am currently reading Wild at Heart and completely agree with your view on the book. While I agree with the thought of the book that men in many ways have stopped being men - the answer is not found in just going outdoors. I believe the problem is more a lack of identity than a lack of masculinity. Through Christ's example we can have both - without going white water rafting.

John Eldredge's views of the Godhead Father / Son relationship is way off: he says on page 63 that God the Father's words "You are my Son, in whom I am well pleased" Means "Jesus I am deeply proud of you; you have what it takes." How wrong this is - Jesus needs no such affirmation from the Father ("I and my Father are one") - The Father spoke for the benefit of those listening - so they would know who he is, not that Jesus needed encouragement.

He also teaches his boys to thump bullies (pg 78) rather than Jesus' principal to "turn the other cheek". Contradicting his own advice by saying turning the other cheek is 'misused' and that Jesus was able to retaliate but chose not to (isn't that what turning the other cheek means).

I join with you in warning that although there are some good elements in this book read with care as there is much that is not based on a biblical view at all.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your well-written response to John Eldridge's book. My brother is into his stuff and going to a "boot camp" and I knew it didn't sit right with me. Your review solidifies things in my mind.

Another unbiblical philosophy that seems to come out is that men need to clan together and depend on eachother. He even uses Jesus as an example - He had his 12 disciples! In a sense we do depend on eachother as the unified body of Christ, but you never see Jesus depending on His disciples for strength and courage in the "battle" - most times He was struggling with their lack of faith! It's through Christ alone that we can do "all things" and we should depend only on Him.

What do you think?

Jacob Douvier said...

I certainly agree that Jesus never needed his disciples for anything. However, Jesus is God, and we are not, obviously. You are right that our ultimate dependance is on Christ, however, I am wary of the "lone ranger" philosophy among many professing Christians who think they can get by as "just me 'n Jesus doing our own thing." Christianity is a corporate faith as well as a personal faith. As you said, we are the Body, and as Paul taught us in 1 Corinthians, the hand cannot say to the eye, "I do not need you." Christ is all we need, but Christ meets our needs though the working of the Spirit in the lives of other Christians. I think I am agreeing with you, but I just want to be clear where I stand on individualism.

Anna said...

So I just came across this older entry, and I really like your review. I have never read or liked what I have heard from either Wild at Heart or Captivating.

I think that the idea behind Wild at Heart improperly narrows the definition of what true men should be like. My father doesn't like many sports or doing ridiculous outdoor stunts, either, but that definitely doesn't make him any less of a man. Duty and virtue are far more important than "wildness."

Jacob said...

Thanks for reading it. It turned into something of a rambling rant by the end (as too many of my posts too). Someone really should invest the time in debunking Eldridgism.

worldwideput said...

Thanks for the post. This is actually the first time I have ever blogged. Today I was eating lunch with a solid Christian and mentioned Eldredge's name to her. She noted that she had read one of his books but that some people at her church found some flaws in his theology so I decided to do a google search on this topic. I have thought about this before while reading two or three of his books over the years. Let me preface what I'm about to say with the fact that I love apologetics and philosophy and live right near a seminary that Norman Geisler runs - Southern Evangelical Seminary (I studied under him for a semester). I'm sure you know who he is, if not then ignore.

I try to be as sound and grounded in theology as I possibly can.
I agree that much of what he says feels like macho bravado and that it appears as if he is expressing his own insecurities in his manhood by relating some of these stories. I actually fall on both sides of the man camp - I am a sports and outdoors freak but could just as easily read Plato's Apology, Ayn Rand, Socrates or even Don Quioxte.

But I think his message has a number of benefits though. I know that the evil in human hearts is responsible for much of what has gone on in history and continues into the present day. But as Christians we do undergo a change in our hearts for the better and I think it is good that someone is emphasizing this. When I read his stuff I don't ever forget that I will still struggle with sin - but it's important for me to believe that my heart isn't always evil and that I can trust it for the most part as long as I check it against scripture and perhaps run some of those thoughts past godly people. He is not advocating running away with every desire that you have. He does generalize perhaps a bit too much about what men enjoy doing but I think there is a lot of truth in what he says.

In other books such as Waking The Dead he says that too much of the focus is on the Cross instead of the Resurrection and it is clear that this is a driving force behind a lot of his beliefs.

I could care less about his outdoor adventures or his dangerous horse rides or how he plays Tarzan of the Jungle with his friends, but I do believe that there are a lot of "men without chests" like CS Lewis talks about in the Abolition of Man (I think it's that one). It is important to remember that numerous scriptures speak of the Lord as a warrior and that Christianity isn't all fluffy and nice as some portray it to be. It is a constant battle for the heart and purity of thought and deed that won't stop until we pass on. I also think he is dead on with some of his comparisons to modern day myths (not all of them though)and how they reflect THE story.

Overall it does take a discerning reader to peel away some of the theological flaws of the book but in the end I will have to disagree with most of the bloggers and state that it does more good than bad.

Jacob said...

I can trust it for the most part as long as I check it against scripture and perhaps run some of those thoughts past godly people.

This, I think, is the crux of the matter: I don't remember Eldridge giving the "check it against scripture and run it by godly people" qualifier that you did. I admit, it's been over a year since I read it, but unless he does make this qualification, I think he is only doing harm to his readers. Scripture is the only reliable way of knowing God's will for my life. While sin remains in man, Scripture is the only reliable and authoritative means of knowing anything for certain.

Regarding Cross vs. Resurrection, I think it is important to note that, yes, Christ is raised, we have not yet been raised, and until we are, we still are battling sin. Frankly, I think encouraging the kind of trust in the heart that Eldridge does will only make dealing with "besetting sins," as John Owen calls them.

I have no qualms with acknowledging that God sometimes uses the language of a conquering King to describe himself. However, I think it's important to remember that the metaphor most used for Christians in the NT is not "warrior" but "sheep."

I have been coming to terms with some sins in my life, and speaking from personal experience, I know that acknowledging and trusting in the goodness of my own heart will do nothing to help me resist temptation or mortify the deeds of the flesh. Only casting my cares on Christ and expectantly waiting on him can I have hope of deliverance. So, on a very human level, I just don't think it works.

I am somewhat familiar with Dr. Geisler, though more by reputation. I'm more on the presuppositional end of the apologetics spectrum (like most Reformed people) and he tends to take a more evidentialist/classical approach.

Thanks for commenting and welcome to the world of blogging! Feel free to stop by and share your thoughts anytime.



worldwideput said...

Funny you should mention Reformed Theology. I was introduced to reformed theology about a year ago because I went with my girlfriend to a PCA church. I absolutely love the church, the teaching is solid, etc. We broke up a few weeks ago and I am staying within that denomination (she has been going to the other church for seven years so she will stay put there) although I didn't grow up as such.

Being the reader I am, while I was at that church I went to their bookstore and picked up an RC Sproul book called "What is reformed theology?" I had never read him before at the time and I probably never will again - nothing against him or his beliefs, I just didn't like his style.

In my men's bible study a few weeks ago we studied Arminianism vs. Calvinism - it worked out well because my one buddy is 100% freewill and the rest of us tend to fall somewhere in the middle. I myself fall somewhere in the camp of a "moderate calvinist" because I think that either view taken to the extreme makes no sense.

When I first became a Christian back in 2003 I read the bible voraciously and, without having any preconceived notions and not knowing Arminianism from Armani or Calvinism from Kelvin, I deduced that the bible is heavily in favor of Pre-destination, especially in Romans, etc.

I am not a fully bloomed TULIP but enjoy the denomination immensely anyway. By the way, how do you setup a blog anyway? These are pretty cool.

Jacob said...

Most of us who fall solidly in the Reformed camp have the same issues with Eldridge. If you take Total Depravity seriously, you have a hard time following your heart. So if you hang out with a lot of staunch Presbyterians, I wouldn't be surprised if they have the same objections.

I am a Reformed Baptist, which is a lot like Presbyterianism, only we have differing views of church government and don't baptize infants.

Personally, I like Sproul's writing style, but I have only read two of his books (Chosen by God and The Holiness of God). James Montgomery Boice's Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace is a good book to introduce Reformed theology, but it's not the easiest book to read!

Romans and the rest of Paul's epistles are part of what lead me to Reformed Theology. I grew up in the evangelical culture and so was unconsciously Arminian.

As far as setting up a blog goes, Blogger, if I recall from when I set up this account, wasn't the most intuitive, but that was about two years ago and they've made changes since then. Anyway, just got to and I'm sure they'll walk you through setting up your own account. In terms of privacy, you can keep things an anonymous as you want.

worldwideput said...

Yeah I grew up Methodist at a church that my parents still attend. When I really became a Christian five years ago I quit attending because it was too watered down and just not a good fit. However, my parents are saved and wonderful people and that church fits them.

Interestingly enough I was baptized as an infant but I wanted to be baptized as an adult because to me it meant more. Anyway, my best friend is a methodist minister and 100% Arminian and he actually told me at the time that I was blaspheming the Holy Spirit by being baptized twice. It was very discouraging to be told that from someone in his kind of position. Of course he was way off base and we are still friends today and debate countless theological issues but it still shocks me that a seasoned minister could misinterpret scripture that much.

Jacob said...

It is always sad when people decide to elevate secondary doctrine like (the particulars of the administration of) baptism. My dad was born and baptized into the Roman Catholic church, but left as a young man. He eventually decided to be baptized again (and did it at the same time I did). Most churches I know of will count it if you were baptized an infant, even if they do not practice it.

I'm not really sure how you can get blaspheming the Holy Spirit from being rebaptized, especially in the instance of'm glad to hear you're still friends!

Anonymous said...

I think you're review conflates different types of desires. Telling someone to chase their desires is not wrong, indeed in a metaphysical sense it is tautological because all men act according to their desires! That being said, the real question is, Are the desires that Eldredge tells men to pursue the desires God intended men to pursue or are they worldly desires?

Indeed, there are some dangerously open-theist moments in the book, but overall Eldredge is dead-on, possibly even brilliant. For example, the concept that man is not as comfortable in the home as the woman, but needs to be "out there" in the "wild"--whether it be the woods or an oil rig or an office--makes tremendous sense and definitely corresponds to my experiences.

You say you are "refined" man, but I think you miss the point. Being refined/cultured can be manly in its own way, just as it can be feminine in its own way. I like studying philosophy; I like studying philosophy because I'm obsessed with learning (like many men) and want to use this knowledge to accomplish my ends. Knowledge is power---that's pretty manly right there! When we use our knowledge to subdue nature, to move ahead as a society, to raise a family, to cast down lies (2 Cor. 10:5), we certainly act in a masculine way.

Just some thoughts.

Jacob said...

The problem I have with Eldridge and his talk on desires is that he discounts (or at least strongly down-plays) the fact that Christians struggle with conflicting desires: desires to serve the flesh and desires to serve Christ. He says that we can trust the desires of our hearts because we are now Christians, yet, I find that to be very foolish in light of what Paul writes about on sin in the Christian.

Are they worldly desires or Godly desires? I think a better question to ask is, "are we right to start with our desires?" I think one of his fundamental flaws is that he tells men that they can recover their masculinity by serving their own needs and desires first, rather than serving others. That we are even having that conversation first instead of starting with the clear, Christ-like mandate that men are given to lay their lives down for others is a gross error and only results in encouraging more selfishness in the hearts of men. He feeds the "me me me" desires.

I understand completely that a refined man is manly in his own way, but my point was simply that I do not think Eldridge understands us very well.

I'm glad you love philosophy, and (on an unrelated point) I recommend you pick up Josef Pieper's "Leisure." It underscores the importance of philosophy in life.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I don't think its wise to say, without qualification, that we can "trust the desires of our heart" to be good. But in terms of what desires we will actually obey, we don't have a choice except to obey our desires---whether they be good or bad. You wrote, I think a better question to ask is, "are we right to start with our desires?" Once again, if man has liberty (choices are acts of the will made according to one's desires), and he does, then we will act according to our desires.

Are you reformed? Liberty is a key component of reformed theology. Jonathan Edwards did a lot of invaluable work in that area, particularly in Freedom of the Will.

Thanks for the book recommendation.

Jacob said...

What am I saying when I ask if we ought to start with our desires is that starting with Scripture and its decrees is a far better than looking at what I desire. I understand what you're saying about liberty and desires. When I sin, it is because I want to sin, and when I do something righteous, it is because I desired that more than something sinful. However, we need Scripture to inform our desires; to convict us when it inclines to sin, and to encourage us when we desire to do what is right, good and true. Thus, starting with me and what I desire is not where manliness should begin, but with Scripture and what God tells us we should love and desire.